For the past eight years, New Japan Pro Wrestling’s Wrestle Kingdom has been built largely around Kazuchika Okada.
Okada headlined Wrestle Kingdom 7 in 2013 at the age of just 25 against Hiroshi Tanahashi. Three years later, he and Tanahashi used the New Japan canvas to create a timeless piece of work at Wrestle Kingdom 10, with Okada finally overcoming the “Ace” of New Japan. The following year, he turned the wrestling universe upside down with a masterpiece against an emerging star from the junior heavyweight division—perhaps you’ve heard of him—when he defeated Kenny Omega.
From the entrance to the performance, Okada is magic at Wrestle Kingdom. And he plans to deliver another memorable match this January 4, adding Will Ospreay—another junior heavyweight-turned-heavyweight—to a long and distinguished list of performers who can one day tell their grandchildren about a dance with “The Rainmaker” in the center of Japan’s vaunted Tokyo Dome.
While his goal remains to return to the main event of Wrestle Kingdom, Okada did share his excitement for the match against Ospreay. Their story includes some detailed history, with Okada bringing Ospreay into his CHAOS stable after their outstanding 2015 match for Great Britain’s RevPro. Okada won that meeting, but the match put an entirely new spotlight on the work of Ospreay.
“I’m excited to wrestle this new Ospreay,” Okada says, speaking through a translator. “When he debuted in New Japan, he was a high-flying ball of energy. Wrestling Katsuyori Shibata made his strikes better and helped him step up a level, and he’s kept progressing since.”
The foundation for this bout at Wrestle Kingdom was laid in October, when Ospreay defeated Okada at Ryogoku Sumo Hall, eliminating him from the G1 Climax tournament. Ospreay won the match due to outside interference from Bea Priestley and Great-O-Khan. Along with Jeff Cobb, they have formed a new faction, The Empire, with Ospreay emerging as its leader.
“I do miss being in the main event, but me and Ospreay will be something special,” Okada says. “Since he formed The Empire, Ospreay’s a lot more grounded as a wrestler. I think he’s upping his game again, and as his opponent, that’s exciting.”
An opponent like Ospreay provides Okada with someone hungry, athletic, and willing to do whatever is necessary to steal the show, all trademarks of his own.
“I think this match will get more attention than the main events of Wrestle Kingdom,” Okada says. “Even if you are not wrestling in a main event, you can still have the best match on the card. If I were in the main event, [Tomohiro] Ishii could still blow my match out of the water earlier in the card. That’s what will happen here. I will wrestle the best match on Wrestle Kingdom. And I’ll beat Ospreay, too.”
Because of the pandemic, New Japan did not run events in March, April, or May, ultimately returning in mid-June. Fans have since returned to shows, though a recent rise in cases in Japan may change that. (The country saw its first day with more than 4,000 new cases on Friday.)
“I had never experienced being away from a ring and not being able to take a bump for this long since I started in the business,” says the 33-year-old Okada, who made his debut in 2004. “So I just missed wrestling. It was that simple. When I got in the ring again, it felt like I was finally able to breathe again. Honestly, being in that ring, it’s like oxygen, and being away made it hard to breathe.
“Even with no fans in the venue, I was happy to be in that ring and wrestling again. Then, when we brought fans back, I got that feeling all over again. It really hit home that wrestling is built on the presence of fans.”
Okada wants the wrestling world to unite in the new year, showing solidarity and a commitment to fans, by creating a never-before-seen supershow that would rock the core of the entire industry.
“Times are tough right now, but I hope what we do will bring joy to everyone all over the world, and give them enough strength and positivity to do their best the next day,” Okada says. “And when the world calms down, I would like to give back with other wrestling companies to all wrestling fans in the world who still support us even in this current situation.
“New Japan, WWE, AEW, CMLL, AAA all together. Sounds pretty cool, don’t you think?”
If a supershow does take place this year, expect Okada to play a key role, just like he did when closing out NJPW and Ring of Honor’s joint G1 Supercard in April 2019 at Madison Square Garden, reclaiming the IWGP heavyweight championship. And even without the main event at this year’s Wrestle Kingdom, Okada remains the focal point of New Japan’s future. He looks to deliver the match of the night in the present, setting a standard of excellence in the ring with Ospreay on Jan. 4 that will be nearly impossible to match.
“I want to show how powerful professional wrestling is,” Okada says. “I want to cheer everyone up with that power.”